Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Questions for Michael Chertoff

Thanksgiving Day, 2005.

A terrorist group announces that it has placed a nuclear device in downtown Philadelphia and that they will detonate it in seven days.

They have no demands. Their goal is simply to create mayhem. And terror.

How would we respond? Who would take charge of the situation? Who would speak for the government? How would individuals and families know how to respond? Whose directions should we listen to? If we should evacuate, where should we go?

Would a threat of an emergency would be sufficient to destabilize a region and undermine our economy? Katrina was an emergency. Rita was just a threat. They both laid bare problems in our preparedness and our response. And the responsibility for addressing these problems lies squarely at Michael Chertoff’s feet as he heads to Capitol Hill.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff goes to Capitol Hill tomorrow for the first time to testify about the performance of FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Without doubt the questioning will focus on the myriad mistakes that were made in the run-up to and in the wake of that storm. Buses that were or were not there. Hospitals that were not evacuated. Food and water. Looting. Ice trucks wandering the countryside. The Blame Game. Enough for some good television, but none of it touches on the important questions.

What has the Department of Homeland Security been doing? Three years and $100 billion later, the most basic aspects of dealing with a significant disaster do not appear to have been addressed.

First, the federal-state-local relationship. FEMA Director Michael Brown, whom Chertoff demoted and then fired in the wake of the Katrina debacle, hung his hat on issues of jurisdiction in defense of his agency’s performance. Who was responsible and for what in the wake of an emergency situation seemed not to have been considered in advance of the storm.

In the pre-9/11 world, one could chalk this up to just one more example of inter-governmental, bureaucratic failure, but no longer. The first duty of the Department of Homeland Security was to coordinate the agencies involved in homeland protection and response. Clearly, this has not been attended to, and that responsibility falls at the DHS level, not the FEMA level.

Second, evacuation planning. How many Americans have received instructions as to the evacuation route that they should take in the wake of an emergency situation? OK, if they haven’t received actual instructions, have they been told where to go to get instructions in the event of an emergency? No? OK, how about where to go for gasoline in an emergency in the event that something happens when their tank is empty?

Forty years ago, during the height of the Cold War, my mother kept cans of baked beans in the basement. We did not have enough to live on for more than a day or two, and we did not have a fallout shelter, but she had been instructed to store some food and to keep it in the safest place in the event of a nuclear attack.

And in school, there were duck-and-cover drills––and of course in true 1960s fashion there were the t-shirts that told you what to do: In the event of attack, place your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye.

I am not advocating for duck-and-cover drills. But watching the traffic fleeing Houston in anticipation of Rita brought home the fact the two visible contributions to date from the Department of Homeland Security are Tom Ridge's color-coded threat alerts, and the suggestion that Americans buy duct tape.

I have no doubt that more is being done, and I imagine that deep in the bowels of the National Security Agency cyber-attacks are simulated and responses implemented, but the evidence from Katrina and Rita is that the more basic aspects of planning have not been attended to, and should be.

Issues of inter-governmental co-operation and evacuation planning are not sexy issues, like the security of our ports, transportation networks or the Internet. But in the wake of the hurricanes, it would appear that to wreck havoc on our nation, our psyche and our economy, one would not actually have to implement a plan attack, but just implement a well-conceived threat.

Michael Chertoff fired Michael Brown for not doing his job. Is he doing his?

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